Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating
Cambridge University Press, 2011
264 pp., $24.99
Food and Faith
The last decade has seen growing solidarity among diverse advocates for environmental justice, health and nutrition, animal rights, and gustatory pleasure. Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating adds an important Christian voice to this ongoing conversation from Norman Wirzba, a research professor of theology, ecology, and rural life at Duke Divinity School. Wirzba, whose previous books include The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age (2003, OUP) and Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight (2006, Brazos), has also compiled a collection of Wendell Berry's agrarian essays, The Art of the Commonplace (2002, Counterpoint), and The Agrarian Reader (2003, University Press of Kentucky). In this, his newest work, he brings a trinitarian and eucharistically centered theology to bear on the complex ecological, economic, social, and spiritual realities involved in one of our most basic and necessary human functions: eating. As in previous books, Wirzba approaches his subject with grace, with "reverence for the creation as the work of God's hands."
Food and Faith is introduced by Stanley Hauerwas, who unapologetically reminds us of ugly truths about the degradation of the planet, the poisoning of our soil and water, our air befouled by the aggressive, profit-driven nature of industrial agriculture. Over the last generation, of course, we have been reminded of these truths again and again, so that many readers have simply become numb to the indictment. Nevertheless, and despite some hopeful counter-trends, the despoliation persists. In a relentless drive for greater profits and power (with lower price-points), industrial agriculture has resulted, among other things, in a dramatic loss of biodiversity—"the homogenization of plant and animal species," which, as Richard Bauckham in The Bible and Ecology and Daniel I. Block in Keeping God's Earth contend, silence the polyphonic song of praise that all creation is meant to sing (and, indeed, in which God delights).
Indeed, Wirzba holds, most food today is handled in such a way that eating "ceases to be the occasion through which we experience life as a membership of belonging, responsibility, and gratitude." In a trinitarian theology, "all reality is communion," and so is rooted and built up in the eternal flow of love between the members of the Godhead: perichoresis. In chapter 1, Wirzba demonstrates the necessity of understanding eating as a moral and theological issue: it "joins people together, to other creatures and the world, and to God through forms of 'natural communion' too complex to fathom." He also makes a case for why food can and should be understood as a "gift of love" and describes the various ways in which this sacrament of everyday goodness is cheapened through its commodification and industrialization, proposing that we reconsider the ways in which eating can be a spiritual exercise.
In chapter 2, "The 'Roots' of Eating: Our Life Together in Gardens," Wirzba considers the ways in which gardens speak to humanity's identity and vocation, arguing that living and working in gardens develops us in ways that cultivate a "spiritually deep" appreciation of food. (As a gardener myself, I can't help but agree: watching an improbable-looking seed grow under one's daily care is both humbling and inspiring; the eventual green beans or tomatoes are eaten with anything but indifference.) Among other things, gardening demands a kind of faithful responsibility to a particular place, and it brings us into a deep communion with the very many forms of life that make up a garden, forcing us to "give up the much-trumpeted goal of modern and post-modern life—individual autonomy—and instead live the life of care and responsible interdependence." He makes a persuasive case for understanding God as a gardener, and human attempts at gardening as a way of mirrors the self-giving, self-forgetting, "letting-dwell" life of God.
If gardening well expresses our membership in creation, the environmental destruction engendered by much of industrial agriculture (with which we are complicit when we act as "industrial eaters" at the end of the pipeline) is, for Wirzba, an "anxiety of membership" in the community of creation. Chapter 3, "Eating in Exile," considers eating disorders as well as ecological disasters in its apprehension of the ways in which the demand for cheap, eternally available food is an outgrowth of the failure of human beings to recognize themselves as responsible members of a community of creation and thus, to do what no animal will ever do: befoul our nest. In turn, this necessarily damages us. As Wendell Berry wrote in the late '70s, "you cannot damage what you are dependent upon without damaging yourself"; Michael Pollan adds this: "your health isn't bordered by your body, and what's good for the soil is probably good for you, too." (And vice-versa).